Probably not many Singaporeans remember this history, but there was a Vietnamese refugee camp at 25 Hawkins Road of Sembawang that existed for almost two decades.
In 1975, North Vietnam invaded the south and captured Saigon, reuniting the country under communist rule. It spelt the end of the Vietnam War, but it also meant hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled their homeland as refugees, many of them ventured desperately southwards by sea to other Southeast Asian countries.
Being a small nation with limited space, Singapore was the first country to stop the boat people from entering its coastlines, instead providing the refugees with food, water and fuel and turning them away. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) cooperated with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) in the Operation Thunderstorm to carry out this task.
Other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia soon followed suit. Sadly, many refugee boats capsized or were attacked by pirates as a result. Thousands died in the open sea.
Between 1975 and 1979, nearly 5000 Vietnamese refugees landed in Singapore through commercial ships, who picked them up in the open seas.
Using the site of a former British army barrack at Sembawang’s Hawkins Road, the Vietnamese Refugee Camp was set up some time in 1978 in order to accommodate these refugees. However, at any point of time, the camp did not house more than 150 refugees as the refugees were quickly sent away to other countries who were willing to accept them.
Hawkins Road Camp was considered one of the better and more humane refugee camps in the region, where horrific stories about the treatment of the Vietnamese refugees in camps of other Southeast Asian countries were not uncommon.
By end of June 1996, the camp was officially closed after the last batch of 99 boat people, living here since 1990, were voluntarily repatriated to a more politically-stable Vietnam. Hawkins Road, which houses the refugee camp, also ceased to exist after that.
Published: 01 July 2011